Dr. Robert Buckingham

Dr. Robert Buckingham has been the Dean of the School of Public Health at the U of S since 2009. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC )

In the 40 years Dr. Robert Buckingham has spent as an academic leader in Public Health at universities around North America, he said he has never been treated as he has been by University of Saskatchewan —told explicitly not to speak publicly about an issue. 

"I have never been told by a university president not to share my beliefs, publicly or privately," Buckingham said.

In a public letter Buckingham titled "The Silence of the Deans", he detailed a December 2013 meeting between senior academic leaders at the school. He said Deans and Vice-Presidents were in attendance. Buckingham claims that President Illene Busch-Vishniac told the group not to "publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUs". Buckingham alleges President Busch-Vishniac went on to tell the group that if they did speak out against the cost-cutting process their "tenure would be short".

'If we did share publicly, [President Busch-Vishniac] stated that our tenure would be short'- Dr. Robert Buckingham

"I felt, at that time, [the] deans were being threatened," Buckingham told CBC News on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after his letter was raised by the NDP in Question Period at the Legislature.

"If we did share publicly, [President Busch-Vishniac] stated that our tenure would be short. I thought that was a threat. What I am concerned about here is freedom of speech at a university," Buckingham said.

Warned again

Buckingham, who became Dean of the School of Public Health at the U of S in 2009, said it was always his intention to come to the school, improve the school and leave his post at the university after five years. Because of this, he contends university administration, including Provost Brett Fairbairn were vigilant in reminding him that speaking out against TransformUs, publicly, was not condoned; especially as the university prepared to make the details of the TransformUs plan public in May 2014.

Buckingham points to an email sent by Provost Fairbairn on April 29, 2014, addressed to him and Dr. Ken Sutherland the Associate Dean and Professor of Fixed Prosthodontics at the U of S, as evidence that academic leaders were muzzled. 

An excerpt from the email reads; "you are in an especially tough position and are subject to the expectation the president has of all of its leaders, that you will support TransformUs and the university's messaging."

University issues statement

Following the circulation of Buckingham's letter on Tuesday, CBC News requested an interview with either President Busch-Vishniac or Provost Fairbairn. CBC News was advised no formal interview would ever be granted on the matter, however the university's communications department forwarded the following statement and said it was attributable to the Provost:

"The University of Saskatchewan has high expectations of its senior leaders to support the university’s directions and to lead their implementation. Top among current priorities are the university’s TransformUS initiatives. Leaders have opportunities to express personal opinions in leadership discussions. Once decisions are made, all leaders are expected to support the university’s directions," read the statement.

'The [U of S] has high expectations of its senior leaders to support the university’s directions and to lead their implementation,'- Provost Brett Fairbairn

However, Buckingham hopes his decision to publicly speak out against TransformUs will encourage others in similar positions to do the same.

"I certainly felt stifled and muzzled," Buckingham said "I think there are probably other Deans at this university who are feeling muzzled also, afraid to speak out."